A full official opposition, under the terms of the Assembly and Executive Reform Act 2016, will now be formed in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the current five-year term.
It will be the first official cross-community opposition to a cross-community government in the history of Northern Ireland.
The seven Executive Departments except Justice will be allocated four to the DUP and three to Sinn Féin. There is already a DUP First Minister and Sinn Féin deputy First Minister in the renamed Executive Office. The Justice Ministry will be filled by cross-community vote, but terms have not been met for the Alliance Party to continue to fill it (the likeliest outcome is a DUP Minister, in return for some deal on policy or ministry with Sinn Féin).
The Ulster Unionists will nominate the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, have first question at Executive Office question time, and their leader will be referred to in common parlance (though not in fact officially) as “Leader of the Opposition”.
The SDLP will nominate Deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, have second question at Executive Office question time, and its leader will no doubt be seen as “deputy Leader of the Opposition”.
Research funds will be made available, but largely at the bequest of the Executive, so these may not be significant.
The Alliance Party fell one seat short of qualifying for the official opposition but would have been deprived of most of its benefits anyway, given that two larger parties are already in it. It will have no official status beyond that of an Assembly group.
The Greens and People before Profit have limited rights as groups also (their speaking rights are in that order, in line with overall first preference vote).
The practical outcome of this is still to be determined.
The Ulster Unionists’ early response to the SDLP’s opting out of the Executive was to welcome it warmly, implicitly offering cooperation. The SDLP seems somewhat cooler about such a prospect, suggesting each party will operate wholly independently.
It is noteworthy that every constituency in Northern Ireland is represented by either an Ulster Unionist or SDLP MLA (and some have both, of course). However their combined strength, no matter how calculated, is still only equal to Sinn Féin alone and considerably less than the DUP alone.
Add in the Alliance Party and the “opposition coalition” would become bigger than Sinn Féin, and also than DUP on first preference vote share (though not on seats). However, a formal arrangement of this kind is surely unlikely.
For all this, the DUP and Sinn Féin still have 53% of the first preference vote and 61% of the seats between them. Throw in that the DUP can raise a Petition of Concern on their own and Sinn Féin only need the Greens or People before Profit for one, and they can in effect put through anything acting jointly or block anything acting (almost) alone. This was the case during the last Assembly term, so the main change of having an opposition is that this majority (and gridlock mechanism) will become more visible to the public.
The political challenge is for the Executive parties not to come to look too cosy but to prove they can deliver in cooperation with each other. The challenge for the opposition will be to demonstrate they are a serious alternative. Both of those are significant challenges.
The first obstacle, which will become notably obvious towards the end of this calendar year, will be what is commonly termed “austerity”, i.e. the real-terms reduction in public spending available for day-to-day services while delivering “mitigation” from welfare reform from devolved funds.
A second obvious obstacle will be corporation tax reduction. It seems almost impossible that Sinn Féin will be able to stand over this politically. Watch for it to be played off against welfare mitigation politically, but this is not going to work financially.
There is also the potential for a new relationship with the European Union.
Further difficulties over the next three election-less years will include Health Reform, reductions in basic funding for street maintenance and similar services, and public sector redundancy and pensions. There is scant evidence the new Executive is prepared for any of these.
This is all before the unforeseeable events that can always shake a system which is still somewhat flimsy. Interesting, but also challenging, times ahead.